Yilong Liu Discusses His New HIV-Themed Work, PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute & the Importance of Queer History
by Chael Needle
In PrEP Play, or Blue Parachute, playwright Yilong Liu introduces us to Erik, twenty-eight, and Bryant, fifty-four, a New York City-based couple from different generations and different countries of origin with different attitudes toward new biomedical interventions like pre-exposure prophylaxis and different relationships to the early AIDS epidemic in the U.S. As the play opens, Erik tries (once again) to read a book that Bryant has written, which in part recalls Jared, a love that he lost in the eighties. Erik doesn’t get too far. It’s “depressing” to return to 1986, surmises Erik; PrEP has seemingly made all Bryant and Jared’s talk about loss “dated.” The two main characters’ disparate attitudes toward PrEP are excavated when Erik acquires an STI while having condomless sex on PrEP outside of the relationship and Bryant becomes aware that he may have been put at risk for acquiring gonorrhea. Erik sees PrEP as liberating for queer men; Bryant isn’t convinced it’s so easy (or that anyone might want) to become untethered from the past.
but isn’t that what’s so amazing about this?
you can just pack up that thirty years of fears and anxieties
and leave them behind you.
but i don’t want to leave them behind me
i don’t want to forget
i don’t want to forget jared
i don’t want to forget my friends
you’ve read my book
you know what they meant to me
good people and innocent people didn’t die just so we could
fuck bare and binge queer eye
In the course of the play, Liu transports the audience to the past via traditional flashbacks but he also creates a character, Agent 701, named after the Truvada as PrEP pill, who helps Erik to travel through time. The magic realism is forged out of the vivid dreams Erik has been experiencing as a PrEP side effect.
One stage direction pops out for the reader and you can begin to understand what’s in store for the audience:
Characters inhabit other characters in the 1980s: Erik becomes Bryant and Agent 701 become Jared, in one of of the switches. As with any time-travel narrative, the question arises: Can present-day outcomes be changed? And, in this instance, what can we learn if things stay the same? Erik and Bryant must wrestle with what has happened while finding their way back to each other on the terra firma of the present.
Opening for previews on April 1 at New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco, California, PrEP Play is a beautiful, insightful story about queer relationships, cultural differences, personal loss, and communal history.
PrEP Play is not the first time Liu has focused on the subject of HIV/AIDS in his work. An earlier work, Lily, drew inspiration from babies in China who ostensibly have been genetically altered to make them unable to acquire HIV. In general, his plays cover the gamut—queer men, family, science, grief, culture clashes. Produced plays include June is The First Fall; Joker; Flood in The Valley, a Bilingual Folk Musical; and Good Enemy.
Originally from Chongqing, China, Yilong earned an MFA at University of Hawai’i and now lives in New York City. His plays have garnered awards (Kennedy Center’s Paula Vogel Playwriting Award and Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award) and he is a Core Writer at Playwrights’ Center. The playwright is under commissions from Audible’s Emerging Playwrights Fund and EST/Sloan Project.
His last produced play before PrEP Play, the Lambda Literary award-winning The Book of Mountains and Seas, saw the briefest of productions (also at New Conservatory) before being shuttered by the first COVID-related lockdown after one preview performance in March 2020.
When A&U spoke with Liu, he was in San Francisco in the rehearsal process for PrEP Play, the first time in two years he had been back in a physical space with others to work on a play. Like many of us, he spent the lockdowns working online and is now making the transition to in-person collaboration.
Upon returning, Liu discovered that time could misbehave off-stage too. It felt weird, he noted, to be back at the same theater that had been mounting The Book of Mountains and Seas. Now, with PrEP Play, almost half of the team is back, including the set designer, lighting designer, and stage manager; the lead actor in Book plays Erik in the new play.
“I arrived in San Francisco from New York about two weeks ago and we started rehearsal immediately after. I could feel the ghost of my past production, the production that never opened,” says Liu, especially as evidence of the past production remained—banners, programs, a calendar opened to March 2020 still hanging on the wall in the conference room where they did paperwork.
“Sometimes it feels like, Oh, no time has passed because I’m in the same space, surrounded by almost the same artists. But at the same time I have a very strong feeling of a whole different world right now and all the time has passed. Because we’re doing a different play and we’re also in a different place as humans, and as artists.”
Back in March 2020, no one knew how soon we could return to anything resembling pre-pandemic theater, Liu reminds. “Two years ago, we never knew that we were not coming back together to do that old show again because, when the pandemic hit, nobody knew how long it was going to impact us. So, at first, we were like, Okay, it’s March, maybe this will pass in a few weeks, maybe we’ll gather again in April, and then maybe we’ll gather in the summer, or maybe we’ll gather in the fall.”
They had hope but no set schedule.
No one from Book knew they would start a new show post-lockdown or that the new show would be by the same playwright.
Yet all had not been lost. The past resurfaced and merged with the present. “In a way I feel like that production that never happened is finding a new way to live within that space. And the way I found out about it is also very weird,” Liu says. “We were rehearsing in that space, wandering in the theater, and I felt something in the corner of the theater—I felt it calling out to me. And I walked over there and found this very tiny piece of wood, and I recognized it: Oh my god, this is from my last show. And I picked it up and our set designer was in the house and he tells me he used the old set to build the new set. That was the moment where I felt like, Oh my god, time and space are really misbehaving, in a very beautiful way.”
The characters of PrEP Play also experience the beautiful, wonderful mysteries of time and space. It’s a theme that Liu has lived.
“As a writer I’ve always been very interested in the eighties, the AIDS crisis, because for me personally I was born in China, born in the nineties, so—very far away from my experience. But ever since I started learning English, ever since I started to know about queerness, ever since I started exploring, I started to read a lot of queer literature—plays—and very quickly I started to learn about the AIDS crisis in the eighties and I felt that indescribable, that visceral feeling inside of me, as if I was reading part of my history.
“Even though I wasn’t there, I wasn’t born, I wasn’t even an American, I was in China, I was just waiting, I felt that this was my history, a history of living and breathing and bleeding inside of me. That feeling that a lot of plays, literature, talk about, that feeling of lineage, that feeling of sheer trauma, and that feeling of a legacy being passed down to you.”
The magic realism in the play, says Liu, is not so much a literary device brought in from the outside but organic to the queer experience. “As a queer person, as an immigrant, I feel like we don’t experience the world in a linear or normal way, right? At the same time a part of us are so progressive; we are actively pushing for change, pushing for transformation—actively we want to live in the future because we all believe the future is queer—but at the same time so many of us are trapped in the past. Trapped in different places in the past, in history. We experience the world in a very magical, very non-linear, very chaotic, very fragmented way. I feel like magic realism is how we are living our life.”
The play draws from the past but also the present, partly inspired by his own use of PrEP, which he started in 2015. “I’ve been in the U.S. for ten years now, but, before I took PrEP, my relationship with intimacy had been more or less impacted by that time, weirdly, the shadows of that time, or the gravity of that time. I feel like there are so many anxieties and so many fears associated with sex, associated with intimacy, for me, especially coming from a place, coming from a culture where I feel there’s less open communication or discussion about HIV. So…for a long time intimacy was something that scared me. So I really felt a shift in my energy, in my relationship with intimacy after I started taking PrEP….It was so revolutionary, so liberating; it freed me from a lot of those anxieties and fears.
“But very quickly, I was experiencing some side effects. Vivid dreams…or heightened dreams,” he says, only reassured once his primary care doctor assured him the side effects were normal.
And, as a writer, as a creative person, he embraced the dreams as “exciting.“ “All my senses were heightened in these dreams. I could feel, I could touch, I could smell, I could remember,” he shares, likening the experience to reading literature, being transported to the world created on the page. Sometimes he felt transported to his childhood. At other times, to the future. An unfettered kind of time travel. “And there was this one time I had this dream or this vision where I felt like I was going back into the past. I was in a sky descending into a dark place and that place felt like the eighties to me. It felt like a darkness, it felt like the skyline of New York,” he says about the eerie feeling.
“Then, a few weeks after that dream, my friends invited me to a paint party, where we drank and we painted and talked. And I started to put that dream on the paper and it’s a picture of man descending into a dark place but with a blue parachute and the parachute has 701 on it, so it’s basically the PrEP pill.” The clarity he experienced inspired him to start writing PrEP Play. He continues: “I’ve always felt that, even though PrEP is magical, it’s lifesaving, it’s revolutionizing to our community, at the same time I’ve always had this concern or fear that it’s also creating a distance, or disconnection, or it’s making the younger generation less aware or less empathetic toward what the eighties were like. So in a way I feel PrEP is protecting us the same way a parachute is.”
And yet PrEP might allow us to make that jump to land in the past, suggests Liu. “At least for me, PrEP is allowing me to feel safe and to get in touch with that dark side of that part of history.”
we are flying past history and time. ready to
you’re messing with me again.
i’m not kidding.
it’s like suicide!
you have a parachute!
what if it doesn’t work?!
there’s a 99% success rate.
Getting in touch with “that dark side of that part of history”—it’s a need Liu senses, a gap of knowledge among members of the younger queer generation. We have many literary works and media reports about the eighties, so “there is a general understanding about our shared history,” he says. “But maybe not the gravity of that history.”
By incorporating time travel into PrEP Play, Yilong Liu finds a way to create a way to connect the generations.
language has a way to preserve the visceral, the ephemeral, the “here and now.”
“A common thread I am seeing in some of my younger-generation friends is maybe they’re less interested in some of the literature, or in some of the stories from the eighties and nineties because it feels so removed from them, or it feels so distant from them, which partially inspires Erik’s reaction. He tried to read [Bryant’s] book but he couldn’t finish it because he finds it so ‘depressing’ and ‘dated.’ And I wonder if that’s how sometimes the younger generation thinks…or may feel. And I wonder if PrEP in the mix of that, in relation to how they feel like this.”
In PrEP Play, the gravity of the past helps pull PrEP parachuters down to earth; what Erik finds is not a revision of the eighties (and what he feels it means to his life) but a re-envisioning of that time and those lived experiences.
“In the beginning of the play [Erik] is very much in a way fantasizing about the eighties because I think PrEP allowed him to do that, to enjoy all the freedom in intimacy and sex without all the fears and anxieties….”
“I started to imagine PrEP as an agent who’s on a special mission to fix that because that’s not the purpose. PrEP is not here for us to feel safe and party harder, but for us to remember that we’ve gone very far to reach this place.”
Freedom, Liu suggests, can return us to history, to what “people might forget: Oh, this is a luxury we didn’t have twenty or thirty years ago and we actually now have PrEP because so many people have suffered, have died, have [made] sacrifices, have participated in drug trials to have this. And the purpose of this is for us to remember, not for us to forget.”
“Erik starts in the play on one side of that spectrum [and] having finished this journey he’s more aware of his role now, at least aware of where he is in the lineage of queer history,” says Liu. “I think Erik is never really sure if he is living inside the events of the book or if he’s experiencing having a dream or if he is really back in time and trying to save Jared…[but] the transformation for me is not if Erik can save Jared and truly change the course of Jared’s history but the understanding of the willingness that he wants to try.
“I think what he needs to understand is the gravity, the reality of history, and knowing that the past cannot be changed. What can change, what he can work on is himself and his relationship to history. I think that is what’s more important to him.”
Erik is not the only character who finds a new sense of history; Bryant also starts to reconsider PrEP and what it means to him and his generation. Liu’s conversations with some of his older friends inspired Bryant’s distrust of PrEP.
Says Liu: “I started to imagine PrEP as an agent who’s on a special mission to fix that because that’s not the purpose. PrEP is not here for us to feel safe and party harder, but for us to remember that we’ve gone very far to reach this place.”
Here and now is also here and then.
once upon a time… in 2018, there is… a chinese boy
who sort of lives with his boyfriend… in the village.
“Once upon a time in 2018. And that actually feels real. Isn’t that true?” Liu poses. “Three years ago—that feels like ages ago. It feels like ‘once upon a time’ because you know that feeling of time is really not behaving. The last two years feel like a decade, a century. Let alone like the eighties.”
He could have updated the play and set it in 2022 but he and the creative team decided to keep the year as 2018. The COVID pandemic would have to be addressed if it were 2022, notes Liu. In addition, he says, Erik grew up in China and as a Chinese man living amid COVID-related stigma “there would have to be much more complicated feelings” if the play were set in the immediate present. He’s not dismissing those feelings. “That’s something I think I want to explore in another project. I wanted the play to speak true to the time when I first wrote it.”
The doubling of epidemics might have overburdened the play, but, even without direct references to COVID, now may very well still resonate with then. One of Yilong’s friends told him: “What the [COVID] pandemic did to the world was what the AIDS epidemic did to the [queer] community back in the eighties.”
The play runs from April 1—May 8 in San Francisco, but there is talk of rolling premieres—productions that might be mounted in Chicago, New York, San Diego, and wherever and whoever else wants to pull the cord and open a blue parachute.
Chael Needle is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @Chael Needle.